A decade ago I was a short kid from a small town who spent much of his spare time playing videogames. A decade ago, one of the games that I - and many of my friends - were sinking hours into was the browser MMORPG-lite called Runescape. This was my first (and until much later, only) foray into the realms of massively multiplayer and online, and was a great tool for building and strengthening social connections. And yet, despite Runescape featuring fairly prominently during some of my most significant formative years, its true impact didn’t come until many years after I stopped playing.
Understanding how Runescape can have any kind of impact - let alone one of significance - first requires some background knowledge. I spent near enough to the entirety of my life in the small semi-rural town of Glass House Mountains, in the same "rustic" Queenslander, on the same gravel street that only existed in refidex around the same time that Google Maps became the go-to navigational tool (pizza delivery was the worst.) In January of 2012, that same small-town kid - now 19-years-old - packed up his suitcase and caught his first ever international flight for an exchange program to the University of Wyoming, USA.
The trip itself was full of positives and perils, but the most destablising aspect was the return. In those short six months, my parents had separated, my home was now a place I had never seen before, and the town itself had different stores and new construction underway. Returning was a dramatic moment for me, but for most of my "old" friends, it was a small blip - and all of my new friends were scattered across the globe.
While I had been warned about this before the trip, experiencing it first hand was an entirely different matter. Walking around a place I had spent nearly every single day of my life and finding it wrong, changed, different, or even totally unfamiliar was harrowing. I felt like an outsider, like the thing that didn't belong. But there were also flashes of comfort, of remembrance and familiarity - flashes of home. I fell back into the old routines - or the closest approximation thereof. I went to the same places. Spoke to the same people.
It wasn't same.
Two years (and several changes of address) later, I'm sitting at my computer when whimsy overtakes me. I'm going to play Runescape, I think, and nothing else. I have no real goal or motive other than a hunger for nostalgia - a desire to visit a place I once knew well. I wonder what it looks like.
And so I do. Logging in seems far more complicated now than it used to be, despite the simplifying feature of a register-via-Facebook button. I remember my password after only two attempts; this is not so much a victory for memory as it is a failure of security: my name and a number do not make a complicated code to crack.
I am immediately presented with a new feature: free gifts for daily playing. I win an item worth 5000 coins. A younger or less cynical version of myself might have marvelled at my good fortune; I am well aware that this prize is rigged to heighten my expectations for the future. Next time I play, the prize will doubtlessly be fish.
But after that, I’m in. Well, after that and a switch to ancient relic Internet Explorer because Google Chrome fails to display anything, I’m finally in. Back at last, standing in the (east) bank of Varrock. Information and names flooded back to me. After almost a decade, I still remember.
My equipment is unremarkable: red cape and crappy steel armour. Worthless. It was my throwaway kit for fighting in the north. The Wilderness. Wildy. The terms kept coming back like I had used them only yesterday. I glance down at the boxed, obnoxious chat window - empty. Nobody speaks. I miss rainbow text dancing above people’s heads.
My equipment also pales in comparison to the full rune-clad two-handed-sword-wielding badass beside me. His name is Dangerpig ‘the Brave’ and his skill level is 904. I suppose that’s impressive. I was close to level 60 when I quit, but I don’t know what that is in skill levels. I fumble around until I find my skills page - less intuitive, more submenus. I’m skill level 616 apparently, so I feel accomplished. Not such a noob after all.
I notice flashing in my menu bar. A pop-up informs me that there is a new poll. Community is clearly an important focus now - it needs to be, for an older game ‘competing’ with dozens of newer, flashier, and more complicated MMOs.
Lord Strago is my character’s name, by the way - after the Final Fantasy character. I had a dozen other alternate accounts named for characters in various media. FlameAragorn is the name of my pure, my PvP account. Somehow I remember his name.
Inside my bank I have rubbish. 89 gold coins - maybe I ought to sell that exp-boosting item I won. 2190 blank rune essences - I remember farming these at one point. 19 trout. 64 holy symbols. 259 tiaras. 2 chef hats - because clearly I needed one to throw in disgust like Gordon Ramsay. And then I spot the 46 mithril hatchets; maybe I was smelting them. Is smelting the right word? I can’t quite recall.
I withdraw a mithril hatchet and my adamant pickaxe. Mining was my primary profession, back in the day. I learned a lot about the world as a miner. Once I was employed to mine 1000 coal, lugging my haul from my favourite mine back to the bank. My ‘partner’ would sell the product for a hefty price and split the earnings down the middle. As I deposited the last load, I realised that I had done all this work myself; I cut him out and sold it myself - this was probably my first personal encounter with concepts like economics and capitalism.
Beside me, another adventurer opens a map. That’s a new animation. I decide now is the time to explore again, to revisit this old home of mine. I walk outside; movement is glitchy. It never was smooth, though. I spot an NPC, yellow text floating above his head, and my heart wells up for a moment. I do not recall the Herald of Varrock, but seeing his words is a comforting sight.
I open the map myself. The world I know is tiny. Greyed-out areas of expanded content stretch in all directions, an ocean of unknown surrounding my tiny semi-familiar island of familiarity. As I look over the map, the locations stick in my mind. Draynor Manor was near my favourite coal mine. I remember the pride I felt the first time I was able to pass by the guard at the entrance to Al Kharid for free.
My aimless wanderings bring me to the Grand Exchange. I have no recollection of this place, but it seems that a large, permanent bazaar has been erected. I’m assaulted with pop-ups, causing the game to stutter and slow. A couple dance in the courtyard by using the follow action on each other. Everything looks different. Better? Maybe. It doesn’t feel better. It’s the new, flashy store in my quiet town that doesn’t belong, that shouldn’t belong - but the world exists with this now and I’m the only one resisting.
I decide to head north. The Wildy is where I was last headed, judging by my equipment, so I should probably check out that expanse of scum and villainy. I quickly reach a crumbling wall that must be activated to pass; no longer can you sneakily lure an unwitting player north and rob him blind. A group of skeletons ambush me, but the combat is hidden behind another pop-up that informs me that “PK Skulls have been removed from the game. If anyone dies in the Wilderness they will drop ALL of their items now.” In a way, that is comforting; being a bandit would have a much higher risk-reward factor in this new Runescape. But that was not the path of my brave Lord Strago. He was not an opportunist; he was an explorer, a true adventurer, and jack of all trades.
I cut down a tree and tutorial pop-ups bombard me. The game has forgotten me, forgotten that I learned all of these things already, a long time ago in what feels like a very different galaxy. I follow the Wildy wall—on the safe side—until I’m ambushed by more skeletons. Killing them gives me an increase in my strength level. A memory flits through my mind: me, wearing full rune platemail. Where did my full rune go? Was it hackers? Bad luck in the Wilderness? That knowledge is lost to time.
Suddenly, the chat window alerts me: a friend has signed in. Cya N Hell is his name. Or her name. I’m unsure; I have no memory of them at all. Some of the names in the list are familiar, though. Old friends. Clan mates. We showed our alliance and respect by using the bow emote; all very proper for a group of pre-teens. But maybe we weren’t all pre-teens then - this was the era where my mother feared every internet person was trying to kidnap me.
I bury some bones and eat some bread to restore my lost health. I cut down an oak tree and light a single fire, levelling up my firemaking skill instantly. I build a line of eight fires before I realise that you can now add logs to a singular fire and it automatically starts emptying the entire inventory, negating the need for repeated clicks. Efficient. But sad. No more fire lines stretching from Lumbridge to Varrock, lighting the path like newbie beacons.
The obnoxious chat window points out that I have unlocked a new song. The game is silent, apart from the ambient noises and the occasional sound of me demolishing a tree (the oak tree grows back in about 5 seconds, a far cry from the few minutes it used to take). I burn another load of logs and gain a health bonus from the warm fire, as well as a reward for freeing a fire spirit. But there is no swelling music, no siren call of adventure. Just me, some birds, and the thuck thuck thuck of wood being cut.
I cut oak for a while, burning it as I go. Five new polls open. Or I get five notifications for old polls. I mess about in the settings a bit and manage to turn on the music. The sounds I have unlocked are from the early '00s and they sound it; there appears to be an unhealthy obsession with what appears to be a xylophone.
Grinding these levels feels a lot easier than it used to, but I'm also not making long banking trips. Burning your quarry is a lot easier, though far less profitable. I notice I have 157 gold coins in my coin pouch to go with the 89 from before. I could maybe buy an uncooked fish or two. Not exactly rolling in money. I remember dealing in ‘Ks’ - lots of a thousand gold pieces. Now I don’t even have one.
Mining is my highest skill at level 59, teetering on the edge. I decide that now is the time. I will become a level 60 miner. I remember entering the mining guild for the first time, though I cannot recall the level prerequisite. There I met Edgar Rene, named after another Final Fantasy VI character. We discussed the series at length. I set a map target for my old coal mining haunt and wander in that direction. I'm lost; nothing looks familiar. I'm amid farms. They look entirely different. And then I see the chicken shed, the one where people slaughtered chickens endlessly to collect feathers and chicken meat. The cow paddock is across from it, but there is a strange rocky wall that I do not remember, and a lack of people milking or fighting cows. The leather industry was born here, in this field, but now it is empty save one mage and an archer taking cheap shots at the trapped cows.
I find the Al Kharid desert entrance. No gate. No guards. Simply the rock wall and an opening for anybody to pass. I feel insulted. I had to save a prince to be allowed through there.
Lumbridge castle looks similar. Behind it, the marsh has given way to a crater with a Saradominist preacher. He's the god of goodness, I think. It's been a while. I find the remnants of the marsh and am surprised to see fog effects. The sky dims and it feels like a different area.
I find my old coal spot and... it is empty. Tin and copper with a couple of guys mining. There is another spot further west, according to the map, and fortunately it is full of coal. Maybe I was mistaken. It wouldn't surprise me; my memory of this game is still foggy. Another miner is already here, with some kind of pet creature named Coal. We share the mithril and coal rocks; the adamantite looks to be out of both our leagues. For a while, we hammer away in unison. I check my progress. Not going so fast. Clicking on the skill shows me that the mining guild entry requirement is now level 60. Or had it always been that? Surely not; I recall talking with Edgar Rene, after all.
I remember the bonus item from the beginning. It gave me free experience; I use it and gain 5000 mining experience. One quarter of what I need.
Another chat window alert informs me that user x eARTh has achieved level 99 in all skills. If I knew how to private chat, I would congratulate him. I wonder what is left for him. By this point, one would expect he had all the worthwhile gear. He will have done all of the quests - are there even quests anymore? I have fond memories of the Romeo and Juliet quest, which forced players to work with one another, but I see no quest log; all I can imagine is x eARTH collecting praise from anybody on his friends list before signing off. Will he come back with nothing left to achieve? Runescape has perhaps improved many of its central features, but without that strong sense of companionship, I feel a lack of incentive. Nothing is keeping me here, in this backwater marsh behind Lumbridge and Draynor. Nothing is keeping me on this server. Nothing is keeping me here, using Internet Explorer for the first non-browser-download task in years. It feels hollow.
And then my mining companion does a handstand. He stands there, balancing in his full adamantite armour, for a solid minute. And I realise I haven't said hello. I haven't said anything to anyone. I was nothing more than a ghost, haunting old locations, but barely interacting with what was around me. "Impressive handstand," I say. There's a strong desire to talk now. I want to interact. I want to feel that pull, the allure of companionship that kept me playing ages ago. But he says nothing, and before long I watch him Home Teleport away.
I discard the coal that I mine. If I could burn it, perhaps I would. Using a fancy addition to the skills menu, I track my progress towards level 60: now at 11%. This is not a goal I expect to achieve. I find a sapphire in one rock. There used to be crowds of people at these mines, before the respawn times were this fast, offering to cut gemstones for free, offering to buy and sell wares. I miss them. I miss the hustle and bustle. I miss the legions of people who would stand in and around banks, offering to buy this for x and sell that for y, dancing and scrolling rainbow text standing out from the standard yellow. I miss the sense of life so much, even in the darkest of places. I miss the pizza parties in the Wildy, groups of strangers trusting each other enough to stand deep within the dangerous wilds, defending each other from bandits, while we took turns cooking pizzas.
I miss Runescape as I remember it, but I realise that it will never be the same. And it’s at that moment that I realise I’ve spent a lot of time stuck in the past, wishing for those halcyon days that will never be again. Despairing over what was lost helps nothing; remembering the fondness and moving on to better pastures is the healthiest approach, in life and in videogames. So while the Runescape I remember - the experience that was so integral to my childhood - is gone, I stop missing it. I live in a new town now, with new memories to make, and new videogames to play and fall in love with and spend hours upon hours immersed in.
And that realisation feels nice.